Sunday 17 December 2017

Newsmaker: Tsai Ing-weni, Leader of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party

Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen Photo: Billy H.C. Kwok / Bloomberg
Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen Photo: Billy H.C. Kwok / Bloomberg

As a British-educated admirer of Margaret Thatcher, the woman on course to become leader of Taiwan was always likely to be regarded with suspicion by China's Communist Party. The fact that she is head of a party dedicated to promoting the island's independence from the Chinese mainland only makes matters worse.

Beijing has already fired a warning shot across the bows of Tsai Ing-wen, favourite to become first woman leader of Taiwan and, in fact, in the modern Chinese world.

Zhang Zhijun, China's minister for Taiwan affairs, warned that it would be "unswerving and firm as a rock" in the face of threats to its sovereignty over the island.

"Let's not regret the value of peace and development after we've lost it," he said, in a New Year's message this week.

Tsai, an academic by background, is unusual in conservative, male-dominated Far East Asian politics. But polls put her Democratic Progressive Party well in the lead for the presidential election this month.

Her sex may not officially be as important to Beijing as her politics. The DPP, unlike the ruling Kuomintang, believes Taiwan would be better off declaring the island to be an independent country rather than maintaining the polite fiction that it is an integral part of China.

But the fact that Taiwan will become the second of China's close and democratic neighbours to be ruled by a woman - the other being President Park Geun-Hye of South Korea - will be a constant reminder of the political revolutions China prefers to resist. China's Politburo Standing Committee has never had a woman member.

Hostility between China and the Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally called, has eased in the past two decades.

A summit in November between current President Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping, his mainland opposite number, was the first leaders' meeting since they split in 1949.

But Beijing continues to regard Taiwan as a "renegade province" that should be reincorporated into a Greater China and its stated position is that any declaration of formal independence would be met with military force. The US is pledged to defend Taiwan if it is attacked - but in one of the world's most sensitive diplomatic "grey areas", that is on the understanding that Taiwan will not actually declare independence.

That accounts for Tsai's caution in outlining proposals for reform that do not cross "red lines". She said: "We will do everything in our power to make sure cross-strait stability becomes the driving force for peace in the Asia-Pacific region."

That caution belies her determination to change Taiwan's politics, in everything from its economy through to social matters - she has expressed support for same-sex marriage.

She arrived in politics via a doctorate from the London School of Economics and technocratic positions, only joining the DPP in 2004. Her rise was meteoric, to vice premier the following year and party chairman in 2008. She lost the presidential election of 2012, but won back the party leadership in 2014 and now stands at a commanding 46pc in presidential polls, with Eric Chu, of the Kuomintang, on 22pc.

A convincing victory would give her a mandate for the sort of dominance exercised by her political role models. She named Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany among current leaders, but added: "Mrs Thatcher was a powerful figure at the time I was a student in London. And I admire her versatility and strength."

For many Taiwanese, the economy is the big concern, with salaries stagnating, and the manufacturing model a thing of the past as production moves to China.

Meanwhile, China is exerting itself across the South China Sea, expanding its naval presence and building outposts on remote shoals claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.

Tsai has an austere public image, living alone in a modest apartment with two cats, and brushing off inquiries about her private life.

That is probably a good thing: women who rose to power in the Chinese world in the past, from empresses to the notorious wife of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, have found themselves vilified as power-hungry, decadent and sexually depraved.

Promoted Links

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Promoted Links

Also in Business